Strange Coincidences: Tainted Toothpaste and the Intellectual Property Cops


September 2, 2007


Browse in Freedom Intellectual Property

It seemed a little fishy earlier this year when news first broke of tainted toothpaste from China. Was it totally coincidental that those disclosures came just as Congress was about to take up a bill to make it easier for Americans to buy drugs from Canada and Europe, and so avoid the ridiculous prices the drug companies charge here?  The bill failed, amid a flurry of concern about the safety of health-care products from abroad  (a concern that was notably absent during the sales jobs for Nafta and Gatt.)  This was even though there have been no reports of tainted drugs from Canada to my knowledge, only lower prices.

Now there is a new round of disclosures, this time regarding children’s toys with lead paint and kindred health hazards.  I have little doubt that China’s eager entrepreneurs have been less than fastidious.  Why would we expect them to be any different than America’s were at a similar stage in its development.  (Cf. Upton Sinclair’s description of the U.S. meatpacking industry in The Jungle.)  But then I saw a story in the current Business Week(September 24, 2007)  that suggested something more might be afoot.

The story is called “Enforcer of Last Resort” and it is short profile of Wu Yi, the Vice Premier of China who has emerged as the nation’s top health cop and overall Ms. Fixit.  “In recent years,” the story says,  “she has cleaned up the country’s image after the SARS crisis, overseen the response to the AIDS epidemic, led tough trade negotiations with Washington, and shored up the mainland’s shoddy record on intellectual-property rights.”

That last one caught my attention.  Intellectual property rights?  What did that have to do with lead paint on toys?  I read on, to an account of Wu Yi’s enforcement blitz.  In the three weeks since she took over the job,” the magazine said, “Chinese authorities have banned the use of lead paint in toys, shuttered 953 unlicensed food processing plants, closed more than 2,000 factories making fake goods, and suspended the licenses of 1,200 drug and medical equipment companies.”

Intellectual property again.  In the name of product safety, Wu Yi has shut down factories making brand-name knock-offs. Probably that includes some ersatz Colgate toothpaste with questionable ingredients and the like that ends up at America’s dollar stores.  But all two thousand factories?  Could there be other axes grinding behind the proverbial scenes – which in China includes a lot of territory I’m told.

I have a hunch  the American recorded music industry regarded the tainted toothpaste and lead paint scares a little the way Rumsfeld and Cheney regarded 9/11 – that is, as a potential gift. Where the latter finally had a pretext for taking out Saddam, so the music industry and others finally had cover for shutting down the patent and copyright infringers.  Not only cover, but also  a club to wield over the Chinese government’s head.

Look folks, they now could say. Americans might be happy to buy cheap movies, music and software.  But they don’t appreciate poisons in their toothpaste and children’s toys.  The intellectual property industries could keep hammering on the latter until the government got serious about the former.

Maybe I’m too suspicious.  But with so many Karl Roves in high places I’m not sure it’s even possible to be that any more. I keep imagining a memo from a PR firm to the Recorded Industry Association of America, on public attitudes towards the industry and its attempts to crack down on copyright infringers.  The memo points out that the industry hasn’t done itself favors – from a PR standpoint at least – by siccing its lawyers on kids who share music on line.  The public sees the industry as a combination of greedy suits and spoiled Britneys all of whom are grossly over-paid.

People resent paying through the nose to fill those fat pockets, the memo says.  Consequently there is a need to re-frame the issue.  Property rights won’t cut it.  You have to make infringement a matter of safety and health – in particular kids’ health.  Once China’s top enforcer gets on the case, no one is going to make fine distinctions.

That’s the memo I imagine.  If you know better please let us know.  I just don’t trust this crowd, and that might be Cheney/Rove/Bush’s ultimate legacy to the country.  Create enough distrust, make people both cynical and scared, and you have paved the road  to authoritarian rule.

As for China, I used to find it curious that cowboy capitalism could thrive in what is still a communist state.  But the over-reaching of intellectual property – which is to say, the assertion of a property regime upon the mind – requires ultimately a property police state for its enforcement. Ideas pervade everything and so the state must pervade everything too.

If a police state is what you want then I guess the communists are the people to go talk to.  Somebody talked to Wu Yi.